How can you play tour guide to a city you’re still discovering yourself?
Dear Mum & Dad
We’re all very excited about your imminent arrival and really looking forward to welcoming you to our dusty little city as our first proper visitors later this week.
First off, some good news: I know you didn’t think we’d be able to meet you at the airport, but via the cunning plan of busting the kids out of school a little early, we’re going to be there. (Great idea there from my sister, of all people. I like the fact that the person advocating that the kids play hooky is a teacher.)
We’re gearing up for a full-on month in host mode. Minutes after you leave, Mrs LC’s parents will touch down, so I thought it might be helpful to try and put together some thoughts by way of preparing visitors for what you’ll see and find when you get here.
If you want to gen up on what to do or where to go before you get here, there’s tons of resources available.
There are proper guides from seasoned bloggers, of course. You can try Velvet’s entries on what to do and where to eat over at Must Love Dust. And there’s Just Kooki, which is packed with offbeat hangouts, cool excursions and hidden treats.
And it would be remiss of me not to plug the fledgling Just Here, which is about to launch its first issue proper (Jan 31! Follow them @JustHereQ) and is on a mission to introduce Doha to itself. (There’s also some bloke in there you might recognise.)
I’d love to post an entry like that, but I’d feel like a fraud if I did it now. I simply haven’t been here long enough. My frame of reference is probably 3% of the city, most of which I only discovered by accident (I’m looking at you, Yum Yum at K108).
So instead, I thought I’d share some observations with you to help you acclimatise to daily life here, assuming we make it back across the city from the airport unscathed.
Hurry up and wait
For me, one of the most highlights of any trip is that initial ride from the airport, where everything’s new and different. Amnesiac saw camels on his first journey, which I think went a long way towards selling Doha to him. So by all means check out the view; admire the contrast between the shiny new and dusty old. Unofficially, though, don’t look at the traffic. You’re here for a while; the skyline can wait.
You’ve heard us talk about the slower pace of life here, so you may wonder why, if everyone is in little/no rush to do anything, are they all driving so fast? I don’t know, it’s just what they do here.
But it’s contagious. In 20 years of driving in the UK, I received a grand total of two speeding tickets, about 17 years apart. Yay me. But since I’ve been in Doha, I’ve already picked up three. When in Rome, and all that. (Although if we were in Rome, everyone would be on Vespas. You’d be nuts to ride one of those here.)
Only last week, Kid A asked me, “Do you remember when we were surprised at people running red lights?” Like we’ve been here four years, instead of four months.
At the petrol station, she also asked me: “How do you know when the tank is full?” I told her the pump clicked to let you know. Her follow up question was: “Have you ever filled up a car?” It’s like Doha is slowly wiping her memory.
And it’s odd, because most of the time, most people you meet are unfailingly polite and courteous. Just not on the roads.
But things do move more slowly here; delays are standard operating procedure. You’ll hear “Insh’allah” a lot. From the National Day parade to the opening of Ikea, via the Salwa Road project, time is an elliptical concept. When Dr Who talked vaguely about “wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff”, I’m pretty sure he had 21st century Doha in mind.
(That’s also my way of apologising for the slightly unfinished nature of the spare room. As with so much else in life, I blame Ikea.)
Sometimes the delays work in your favour, though: you thought you were going to miss Kid A in her school play, but that’s been put back a week, too, so you’ll get to see it after all.
Cash is king
When you’re out and about, you’ll need cash. Heaps of it. In a matter of minutes, I’ve become completely desensitized to carrying vast amounts of readies. Back in the UK you’d be lucky if you found a tenner in my wallet, as anyone who’s ever gone for a drink with me will attest. Everything went on a card. Cash was something only used for corner shops, barbers and parking meters.
Here though it’s the lifeblood of the economy, so get your haggling muscles warmed up, hit the cash machine and you’ll be ready for the souks.
And you’ve come at the right time weather-wise; you can be out and about all day and the only time you’ll need an extra layer is when you go indoors and get blast frozen by the air con.
As for the rest of it…well, there’s a few parks and restaurants and landmarks I can happily navigate us to. But if you’re going to flip open Marhaba and ask me “Have you..?”, chances are, even though we’ve been exploring busily since we arrived, the answer will almost certainly be no.
I’ll be honest: before we moved here one of my biggest worries was that there wouldn’t be anything to do. All you read about was malls, the searing heat, construction and roadworks.
But the biggest surprise has been finding out just how much there is to see and do here.
Look what I haven’t done
So, no, I don’t what the acoustics are like at the amphitheatre or how often the dhows run. Or what the mangroves are like, or the Inland Sea, or Sealine, or where’s good to camp in the desert, or if the falcon souq is fun (although it sounds like it should be) or what it’s like to go dune bashing, or wakeboarding, or kitesurfing, or what that new farmers’ market is like, or if the camel races, with their robot jockeys, are as wacky as they sound.
But it turns out I’m not alone.
In keeping with my ongoing new year’s resolution to talk to new people, we were part of 20-strong brunch contingent this weekend. I asked around: what tips did they have for visitors? And in amongst the restaurant recommendations and practical advice was a common theme: this is a hard-working town. People lead busy lives. There were plenty of places people had wanted to visit, but hadn’t yet done so.
Having people come to stay is a different prospect to going on holiday and lying on a beach somewhere; there’s a daily routine to work around – commuting, homework, all that. But there’s also plenty of time to explore if you prioritise it.
And perhaps that’s the point of playing host – not to beat yourself up because you’ve never done this, or visited that.
But to prioritise the other stuff. To make a plan and cross some of those things off your list together.
So, robot camel jockeys, here we come.